Women in Power

Women Taking the Lead

By Katherine Heerbrandt | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 04.08.16 – Feature

It’s 1969: A teacher is expounding on the issue of women in the workplace. They don’t belong. They shouldn’t be making what men make because men are supporting families. A 17-year-old girl in the class decides the male teacher is the problem, not working women. Her single mom is teaching a class across the hall, supporting the family.

It’s 1982: A candidate for office is told she is “running on her husband’s name.” The second big controversy over her bid for office is whether she should wear her long hair up or down.

It’s 1989: The first woman principal of a large city high school in 60 years finds out that faculty members are taking bets in the teachers’ lounge on how long she will last.

It’s the early 1990s: A professor tells a grad student she will never be a successful woman because she is “nice and pretty, and not aggressive or strong enough.”

It’s 1998: A woman on the campaign trail is giving a radio interview. The interviewer asks how she plans to take care of her family if she is elected. Her response? “Are you asking the men that question?”

These stories come to mind effortlessly, burned into these women’s memories, stoking a passion to prove the naysayers wrong.

The 17-year-old girl, Karen Lewis Young, went on to a management career in banking, and ran successful campaigns for Frederick City alderwoman and state delegate. The woman “running on her hubby’s name,” J. Anita Stup, would become the second woman county commissioner, and the first woman state delegate from Western Maryland. The high school principal, Elizabeth Burmaster, was twice elected as state superintendent of schools in Wisconsin, and is now president of Frederick Community College.

Jan Gardner proved she could raise a fine family, thank you very much, and be a county commissioner, and later Frederick County’s first County Executive. And that “nice and pretty” female graduate student, Andrea Chapdelaine, was strong enough to be named president of Hood College in 2015.

The number of high-achieving women in influential positions is at an all-time high in Frederick County. In addition to Lewis Young, Burmaster, Gardner and Chapdelaine are: FCPS Superintendent Theresa Alban, county Health Officer Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Elizabeth Cromwell, Director of Social Services Diane Gordy, state delegates Kathy Afzali and Carol Krimm, county council members Jessica Fitzwater and MC Keegan-Ayres, and city alderwomen Donna Kuzemchak and Kelly Russell. The list goes on. And although some are not the first women to hold these top spots, the fact that they are in these positions, at the same time, is a sign that the times they are a changing.

The power shift has not gone unnoticed. At Gardner’s state of the county address on June 26, 2015, Alban, Burmaster, Chapdelaine and Cromwell sat next to one another. “A prominent man seated behind us said, ‘Look at this! Women are taking over the county!’ and we said, ‘Yes we are!” says Chapdelaine. When she arrived in Frederick and assessed the local scene, Chapdelaine was pleasantly surprised to find herself in the company of so many women leaders. “It wasn’t on my radar when I came to Frederick,” she says, “but I looked around and said, ‘How cool is this?’”

A NEW ERA

Burmaster, originally from Frederick, came home to take the helm at FCC in 2014. Although she wasn’t surprised to find women in leadership positions in Frederick County, she says it made her happy to see it. “It made me realize that Frederick is a very vital, incredible county that is right on the cusp of taking off in so many different areas.”

Do women in an unprecedented number of top spots at the same time signal a coincidental shift or a new direction for Frederick County? For Kim Dow, creator of Sass Magazine and owner of Kalico Design, a graphic design firm, all the signs are in place for a new direction. “There’s a lot of young leadership on the rise,” Dow says. “In the next few years, it will be pretty awesome. They are young, and they are coming in with much more diverse backgrounds.”

Lewis Young, a Frederick resident for 19 years, doesn’t recall so many women in senior leadership positions in education, business and politics. In that time, much has changed locally and nationally, although the income equality and achievement gaps between men and women are still wide overall. “On one hand, we have come a long way; on the other, we are earning 79 cents on the dollar for every man in the same job. Women of color make 60 cents on the dollar, Hispanics make 55 cents on the dollar,” she says.

Women are faring well in politics, although their numbers are relatively low on the city and county’s various commissions, according to Diane Fink, executive director of Emerge Maryland. Emerge offers an annual training program for Democratic women seeking public office. “Women usually run for office because of an issue or issues they are passionate about,” Fink says. “Men usually run because they want the power.”

Many women start out in groups like the PTA, where they can take on leadership and advocacy roles. Stup says she had name recognition from her school activities, serving as president of West Frederick Middle School PTA.

Brunswick Mayor Karin Tome was a council member before winning her mayoral campaign in 2012. She plans a run for reelection in August. But before running for office, Tome was also active in the PTA. “When you have children, the passion in you is stirred. You personally feel like you want to make the world a better place,” she says. Now one of just 17 women mayors (out of 157 municipalities) in Maryland, Tome believes more women will fill those jobs in the future. “The best I can do to inspire people to run is to do a good job, to be in the trenches and work with people regardless of their gender, ethnicity, political party,” she says.

THE VALUE OF MENTORS

Mentoring is a key element in many of these women’s stories. Although most of them identify strong, supportive women, including their mothers, as motivating and inspiring them, they also received guidance from men in their professional and personal lives, including supervisors and husbands. “My support, first and foremost is family. I had to have support of my husband and my kids when I first ran for office,” says Tome.

Chapdelaine’s husband gave up his own career to support hers, giving her the time and space she needed to become a college professor, then an administrator. Throughout her ascent, she looked to men and women in her life to fortify and encourage her. “The lesson I learned is that if a door opens and you are not sure you are ready, listen to people who know you well,” Chapdelaine says. “Women are a little more risk averse. … I may not have felt confident … but it’s gotten easier over the years.”

Burmaster also believes mentoring makes a difference. “Mentoring has been a thread throughout my whole career. Now in my 40th year of public education, I always sought out mentors, and they sought me out. I was very fortunate that there were leaders who told me that I’d be really good at this.”

Gardner, who Emerge’s Fink calls “a trailblazer,” found a kindred spirit in Marilyn Praisner, the longest serving woman on the Montgomery County Council who died in 2008. “[Praisner] was instrumental to me when I got involved with MACO (Maryland Association of Counties). She showed me how to get things done, how to make the system work,” Gardner says.

One of the fundamentals Praisner taught Gardner was to be well-prepared to answer questions, and push to a conclusion. “I have a reputation as someone who does her homework,” Gardner says. “A lot of women have that in their background. You can think on your feet, having done your homework.”

Del. Krimm worked for former delegates Sue Hecht and Galen Clagett before becoming a Frederick City alderwoman. “What I learned from Sue that has helped me today is the entire process: how government works and the interrelationships, and to take the initiative. You can’t wait for people to come to you, you need to pick up the phone and call them.”

To do that, confidence is essential, Krimm says. Confidence comes from working hard and chalking up successes. And she answers her own phone, to the surprise of some callers, who think she’s the administrative assistant.

CATALYSTS FOR CHANGE

Some women, however, navigated their careers with few women role models, including Alderwoman Russell. She retired from the Frederick Police Department as a lieutenant in 2003. Rising quickly in a department that is 90 percent male, she earned her sergeant stripes in a record five years. Without a role model, she initially attempted to imitate her male supervisors, but quickly discovered that her rough, tough act was untenable—and unappreciated. “Nobody wanted that from me. I relaxed, turned the tide, and learned what I needed to do,” Russell says.

Soon after retiring, she took on a land use issue at the urging of a neighbor, and her success prompted her to get more involved at City Hall. Running for alderwoman was a natural evolution. Now president pro tem and serving her second term, Russell says Alderwoman Kuzemchak inspired and coached her. “There always seems to be some catalyst for women [to run for office.] For Donna, it was a traffic light on 16th Street. For me, it was planning and zoning.”

Frederick saw its first woman mayor in 2002 when Jennifer Dougherty beat out two-term incumbent James Grimes. Dougherty recalls some questioned whether a woman could handle the pressure of the job. “’Can you handle those old boys?’ was a phrase I heard while knocking on doors,” she says. “Fortunately, many people knew me from my business and Chamber of Commerce experience, so they knew I was prepared—and tough!”

Dougherty also recognizes the value of preparation, and spent a lot of time learning technical explanations so she could talk with confidence. “From the water details to budgets, I knew the nuts and bolts. Women expect to be questioned and work hard to have the answers, rather than push it off to staff,” she says.

WORK TO BE DONE

Stup earned a reputation for elbowing her way through the good, old boys and the traditional protocols in order to get the job done. She recalls her first meeting as commissioners’ president. The previous president, Galen Clagett, had a relaxed style, seldom starting 9 a.m. meetings before 9:30 a.m.

“[At my] first meeting, few showed up on time. I didn’t need a quorum—no voting required. Finished at 9:30. Next week everyone was there at 9 o’clock,” she says.

Stup was in office from 1982 to 1999, two terms as county commissioner and two as state delegate. Over the years, she says much has changed. Ability and being able to communicate take precedence over gender in selecting our officials now, she says. Gardner agrees that the path is now easier for women; she no longer gets questions about her role as mother and wife.

The first local elected official to be pregnant while in office, County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater, says it’s rare that anyone remarks on her pending motherhood in relation to her job. “While occasionally someone will ask, ‘How are you going to manage having a kid with everything else on your plate?’ most people are very excited for me,” Fitzwater says. “I’m sure there has been some backroom grumbling about me being pregnant, but frankly it doesn’t bother me one bit.”

Despite the inroads women have made in attaining positions of power in Frederick County, there’s more to be done. Women of color, with the exception of Social Services’ Diane Gordy, are missing in the power landscape of the county. More women are needed in key commission posts.

“We absolutely need to do a better job of getting more women to the table in elected and appointed leadership roles both in Frederick County and statewide,” Fitzwater says. “I have tried to share openings on county boards and commissions with my networks and encourage strong, talented women to get involved. Women often discount their experiences, such as volunteering for a nonprofit, organizing events at church, or serving on a PTA board, but those experiences are part of what make women great community leaders.” she says.